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When parents also care for their parents, everybody is challenged
January 1st, 2011
The individuals described in this article are fictional but are based upon real circumstances and experiences that the author has addressed in her practice.
Joan feels overwhelmed and anxious. She is a single parent with three school-aged children. Not only does she work full time to support her family, but she also is trying to cope with her aging parents, David, 80, and Sara, 78, who live independently in their home.
Very often during the week Joan finds herself running between attending her children’s many extracurricular activities, maintaining her home, and trying to help her parents. Sometimes during her workday she has to leave to take her parents to medical appointments. Joan is frustrated, as her parents do not want to address their limitations. This is all becoming too much for her.
David had a stroke last year and his recovery has been slow. He has minimal functioning of his left arm, which makes dressing and bathing challenging and potentially dangerous.
His eyesight has deteriorated and he therefore had to give up driving five months ago. This was a huge blow to David’s sense of independence and self-esteem.
To make matters worse, Sara was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. She is also struggling with some memory loss. On more than one occasion she has left the gas burning and the water over flowing in her bathtub.
David and Sara have always functioned within a traditional framework with David being the breadwinner and Sara the homemaker. Since David’s retirement eight years ago, he took up volunteering to create meaning, function and structure in his life. Sara continued in her role as a homemaker.
Given the recent challenges in their life, they feel they have lost their footing and fear they are on the brink of losing their ability to live independently. They do not want to be a burden to Joan and tend to minimize their limitations and deny her observations and concerns.
They often feel frustrated, as they perceive they are being “parented” by Joan. She is an only child and feels responsible for her parent’s wellbeing.
What used to be a pleasant relationship between Joan and her parents is now tense and uncomfortable, fraught with arguments and disagreements.
The above scenario is a common occurrence for many families. This challenging situation can be addressed with help and support from numerous resources.
Joan may benefit from individual psychotherapy to help her work through her frustrations and explore how she can reduce her stress and anxiety. She needs to feel validated and supported, which in turn will reduce her angry feelings toward her parents.
Joan’s feelings of empathy toward her parents will increase as she becomes aware, through the therapeutic process, of her parent’s grief over their impending loss of independence.
Joan will learn ways to cope effectively with being part of “The Sandwich Generation” — that is, a generation of people who care for their aging parents while tending to the needs of their children.
Access to services for older adults will help David and Sara maintain their independence and cope with their feelings of loss and anxiety. The many resources available to them can be provided by agencies that use volunteers to help older adults and social service agencies.
Everything from rides to medical appointments, assistance with shopping, help with chores of day to day living, social events and outings are all within their reach.
As Joan develops a better relationship with her parents she can help them find and facilitate support. The Internet is an excellent tool. By searching for “help and support for older adults in Milwaukee,” Joan and her parents can navigate and learn about what options are available to them.
Understandably, David and Sara may initially resist in-home help and support. Accepting their situation and coping with their feelings of loss over the changes in their role and function is a process that will take time to work through.
It is also reasonable to assume that David and Sara may be resistant to psychotherapy, given generational assumptions and the stigma associated with seeing a therapist. Nevertheless, they, too, could benefit greatly from individual and couple’s psychotherapy. It is essential for them to work with a therapist who has expertise in treating older adults.
Having their feelings and challenges normalized, addressed and validated will allow David and Sara to cope more effectively with their expectations, and changes in their role and function. This in turn could help them establish a healthier relationship with their daughter.
Melanie Wasserman, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Milwaukee.